(1 Kings 21)
Ahab took a walk on his palace roof in the cool of the evening. In the crowded centre of Samaria there wasn’t much open ground, but a nearby vineyard provided rural relief amidst the urban scenery. Gazing at the vineyard, Ahab’s fancy became a deep yearning, so he determined to buy the plot. Next morning, he sent a messenger to make a deal with Naboth, a second-generation landowner from one of the city’s founding families. Naboth wasn’t rich, but he wasn’t tempted by the king’s money. “I can’t sell the family farm!” he said.
Ahab is seen as one of Israel’s worst kings. He was a liar, a cheat, and a bully, but this incident is the only recorded example of corruption that could get him impeached under modern law. Samaria occupied a hill that was well suited to vine growing, so Naboth’s vineyard may have produced especially good grapes. Whether that was so or not, Ahab’s desire for that land led to a series of disasters that went on for three generations, shook his own kingdom and the kingdom of Judah, and eventually destroyed the whole of his family.
Ahab was bad, but he was outclassed in wickedness by Jezebel, his wife. Seeing her husband sulking about Naboth’s refusal, she cooked up a scheme to get Naboth arrested and executed under false charges – then Ahab took over the vineyard. The story would not have made the evening news, even if broadcasting had been invented back then. Few people knew what had really happened, and the king’s inner circle knew better than to risk his wrath. Jehu, the army commander, knew, and deplored it, but kept his thoughts to himself. There was another man who knew the facts, though he had not witnessed the events directly. That man was the prophet, Elijah, and prophets have ways of knowing things. Unafraid of criticising the king, he marched to the court to warn Ahab of disasters that would destroy his family and his kingdom.
This is a story of greed, pettiness, deceit, and abuse of power, but it began with an apparently reasonable request. Ahab didn’t just seize the land – he offered good money for it. Even when Naboth refused his bid, Ahab didn’t go straight for the land grab – that was Jezebel’s idea. But her weak-kneed husband didn’t have the guts to stick up for what’s right. Soon after Naboth’s death, Ahab led his army to war, and was shot by an archer who wasn’t even aiming at him! Ahab’s two sons by Jezebel succeeded to the throne, one after the other; the elder died from an accident; the younger was assassinated by Jehu, Ahab’s former army commander, who took over the kingdom. Then Ahab’s remaining male descendants were slaughtered, and so was Ahaziah, the king of Judah. Ahaziah’s mother, Athaliah, was Ahab’s daughter and, as soon as she heard that her son was dead, she slaughtered the remaining heirs to the kingdom of Judah and took over the throne herself (though a nurse rescued one baby). That deluge of disasters resulted from one covetous glance. There’s enough material in this to write a novel!
The takeaway lesson from this story is that one moment of selfish desire can set off a chain of trouble to last generations. Gazing at the vineyard, Ahab’s fancy became a deep yearning. He didn’t recognise the risks of desire. This story is a study in how temptation works, and I’ll come back to that in another blog. However, for the time being, let’s just learn to be wisely afraid. If we want something badly it may turn out badly. Better to shelve it and turn our attention to things we want well.